The best books I read in 2016

These are my favorites of the books that I read during 2016, which are not necessarily books published in 2016 (the same rules as in previous installments). History and Russia were the main themes this year; I did read a fair number of China and economics books, but most of those ended up being fine and useful rather than books I wanted strongly to recommend. I also read less fiction this year than I usually do; not sure why.

Here they are, more or less in the order I read them:


  • Robert Tombs, The English and Their History. Almost every one of its thousand or so pages is delightfully written and filled with interesting information. I particularly enjoyed the clever structure: after covering each era, Tombs writes a chapter on how it was understood by its contemporaries, later historians, and current research. It’s a wonderful device for disposing of myths and delivering clarity.
  • Lars Mytting, Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. Essentially an ethnography of home energy consumption in Norway. It’s hard for me to explain why that is so interesting, but it is.
  • Patti Smith, Just Kids. I never had much time for Patti Smith’s music, so took me a while to pick up this widely-praised memoir; in fact she is a lovely writer with a great eye for detail. The portrait of struggling artists in 1970s New York avoids the obvious pitfalls of self-absorption and name-dropping with its honesty.
  • Mark Miodownik, Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made WorldAn exemplary work of popular science writing, exposing the fascinating processes underlying lots of, well, stuff. The section on chocolate is a highlight, so are the ones on cement and steel.
  • Benedict Anderson, A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir. A delightful short book with many reflections on Asia, translation and comparative scholarship. I also re-read his Imagined Communities this yearwhich still ranks as both a great read and wonderful piece of boundary-crossing scholarship (more discussion here and here).
  • Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism. A fascinating piece of intellectual and political history, from the scribblings of Russian aristocrats to the speeches of Putin, that has only become more relevant since its publication. Check out this excerpt for a taste.
  • René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Perhaps the strangest, most unusual book I have read all year–as well as the one with the best title. Then again, I don’t read a lot of Biblical exegesis-cum-philosophical anthropology, if that is even a category with more than one member. Great social insights from a unique mind (more discussion here).
  • Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Started on a whim, this book ended up taking over my life for much longer than I anticipated. Exhausting and rewarding in equal measures, it is without peer as a feast of scholarship and knowledge. One of its many themes is how much of the twentieth-century world was born in the nineteenth century, but it defies schematic summary.
  • Enrico Moretti, The New Geography of Jobs. A very clear explanation of the causes and implications of the one of the more important socio-economic facts of the moment: that “the knowledge economy has an inherent tendency toward geographical agglomeration.” Recent political events suggest that the social downsides of geographical polarization deserve more attention than he gave them in this 2012 book, but I still found it very helpful.
  • Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet EconomyA vivid analytical narrative of the last decade or so of the USSR, focusing on the drivers of Gorbachev’s reforms and the factors that ultimately thwarted them. Another interesting theme is how Soviet leaders viewed China’s contemporary reforms.


  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season. A truly surprising and interesting fantasy novel, a species that has become almost extinct in this age of endless variations on the same genre tropes.
  • Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound. A surreal but always compelling portrait of the tumultuous twentieth century in one Indonesian city; bears comparison to One Hundred Years of Solitude. 
  • Madison Smartt Bell, Straight Cut. A standout noir novel from an unlikely source; reminiscent of the European-expatriates-in-peril stories of Patricia Highsmith.
  • Philipp Meyer, The Son. Three generations of Texans and their frontier legacy of violence; it captures well how one person’s desire for freedom can destroy another’s.
  • John James, Votan. Extravagantly praised by Neil Gaiman, and in fact extremely good and really unlike anything else. A cynical Greek merchant uses primitive mythology to swindle some Germanic tribes, but it becomes increasingly unclear who is using whom; a must for anyone who enjoys the Norse myths.
  • Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others. Quite simply, one of the best science-fiction short-story collections ever published. Apparently the movie Arrival is based on the title story, which is stunning because it is one of the least visual and most obviously unfilmable narratives I have ever read.
  • Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow. An absolutely charming story of a disgraced Russian aristocrat whose house arrest during the revolution turns out to be the best thing that ever happens to him.
  • Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Strangely titled, since it is actually about the life of a bishop. A mostly plotless but very moving account of French missionaries in New Mexico, sharply evoking loneliness, culture clash, fulfillment.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin, The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas. A feast of excellent and mostly recent writing from LeGuin, much of which was new to me (most of the good stuff in the anthologies of her short stories published a couple of years ago I had already read). I also enjoyed Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords, which was recommended by LeGuin herself, and is quite LeGuin-ean in its attention to comparative social structures.

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